Education secretary Gavin Williamson tells MPs that the government is putting its “trust in teachers, not algorithms”.

News reporter
@luciabinding

Teacher assessments will replace GCSE and A-level exams in England this summer, the education secretary has announced.

“This year, we’re going to put our trust in teachers, rather than algorithms,” Gavin Williamson told MPs in the Commons.

Setting out his plans for students as MPs prepared to vote on England’s latest national lockdown, Mr Williamson said that a form of teacher-assessed grades will be used, with training to ensure grades are awarded “fairly and consistently”.

Vulnerable children and those whose parents are key workers can continue going to school, and nurseries and childminders can remain open.

Announcing that GCSEs, A-levels and AS-level exams will not go ahead, Mr Williamson said: “Last year, all four nations of the United Kingdom found their arrangements for awarding grades did not deliver what they needed, with the impact felt painfully by students and their parents.

“Although exams are the fairest way we have of assessing what a student knows, the impact of this pandemic now means that it is not possible to have these exams this year.

The grading of GCSE and A-level students in England became a fiasco last summer when end-of-year exams were cancelled amid school closures.

Thousands of A-level students had their results downgraded from school estimates by a controversial algorithm, before Ofqual – the exams regulator for England – announced a U-turn, allowing them to use teachers’ predictions.

Mr Williamson acknowledged that exams are the “fairest way” of assessing what a student knows, but said the impact of the pandemic meant they could no longer go ahead.

He confirmed his daughter is one of the students who will now not be sitting her GCSE exams this year, and added he hoped today’s statement had given students and parents “a clear sense of certainty and direction of where we are going”.

“We will also be following this up with further detailed consultation by Ofqual that will be launched next week,” he said.

On school closures he said that schools were “much better prepared than last March” to implement home-learning and that he expects schools to provide between three to five hours of teaching a day.

Boris Johnson said on Wednesday the lifting of restrictions would be a “gradual process” and not a “big bang” – and that schools would be “the very first things to reopen”.

“That moment may come after the February half-term, although we should remain extremely cautious about the timetable ahead,” the prime minister told MPs.

Education Select Committee chairman Robert Halfon earlier told Sky News the situation regarding schools was “a mess”.

“I think now we have to move on and make sure we have an exam system that is a level playing field for students and fair to the disadvantaged,” he said.

Downing Street said later that Mr Johnson continues to have confidence in Mr Williamson and believes he is the best person for the job.

The prime minister’s press secretary Allegra Stratton told reporters Mr Williamson had produced a “full and comprehensive” package of measures for children who will be educated at home.

“It’s a huge brief and the prime minister believes the education secretary is doing it to his utmost ability,” Ms Stratton added.

The other three nations are taking a similar approach, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon imposing a lockdown on Scotland for the rest of January and the closure of schools until February.

Schools and colleges will be closed in Wales until at least 18 January and move to online learning, with GCSE and A-level exams already cancelled.

In Northern Ireland, pupils will learn remotely until the mid-term break and all scheduled GCSE and A-level exams have also been cancelled.

He has been described as “beleaguered”, “embattled” and “hapless”, accused of presiding over a “shambles” and a “fiasco”, and faced calls to be sacked.

But in a Commons statement that he must have feared would be as painful as a severe caning in the headmaster’s study, a defiant Gavin Williamson came out fighting.

The education secretary’s inevitable – and widely predicted – schools and exams U-turn won’t mean the end of the anxiety and fury of teachers and parents. But it has probably bought him some time.

He has attempted to mitigate the disaster of school closures by throwing money at the problem, which was probably his only option given the gravity of the massive disruption now being inflicted on pupils.

So, there’s cash not just for laptops but also food parcels or free school meals. Clearly Mr Williamson wants to avoid yet another battle with star footballer and campaigner Marcus Rashford.

There’s also an attempt to make sure remote learning happens by making it a legal requirement. Will that make any difference, though?

Labour’s Kate Green claimed 1.78 million children don’t have access to a laptop or iPad, which is an alarming figure.

The point has been before, but remote learning is all very well for the children of affluent, middle class white-collar professionals working from home, but hardly ideal for those of hard-up parents in low-paid jobs who can’t afford not to work.

But it’s the uncertainty over exams that remains the biggest problem and was a concern raised with Mr Williamson by some Conservative MPs.

There must also be a worry that children who were due to sit GCSEs and A-levels are heading for three Ds: de-motivated, dis-incentivised and demoralised.

Mr Williamson probably won’t survive the prime minister’s Cabinet reshuffle, whenever that comes, at least in his current job.

His supporters will claim the pandemic has placed him in an extremely difficult, if not impossible, position.

Many MPs will also argue that Boris Johnson should have over-ruled him and sided with Matt Hancock and Michael Gove and acted earlier rather than dither and let the indecision drift towards inevitable U-turns.

Many Tories are also furious with Mr Williamson for being too soft on what they regard as the “Trots” running the teaching unions.

When he was defence secretary, it was claimed government insiders called Mr Williamson “Private Pike” after the gormless Dad’s Army character.

Now his critics would no doubt argue he’s blundering from U-turn to U-turn like Captain Mainwaring.

However, after this Commons statement, the criticism from Tory MPs and the Opposition could have been worse.

Some Tory MPs – including the often-critical Education Select Committee chairman Robert Halfon – actually praised him for some of his announcements.

And at the end of his response to Kate Green, Mr Williamson became surprisingly animated and passionate. At least – like Captain Mainwaring, perhaps – he’s not going down without a fight.

© 2021 Sky UK

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News – COVID-19: GCSE and A-level exams to be replaced by teacher assessments in England this summer